Israeli officials reacted with bitter scorn to a Christmas message from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in which he called Jesus a Palestinian and suggested Israel was to blame for the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.
“He should have read the Gospel before uttering such offensive nonsense, but we will forgive him because he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel on Monday. Abbas’s statement is an “outrageous rewriting of Christian history,” according to Palmor.
Earlier on Monday, Abbas published a lengthy Christmas greeting, calling Jesus “a Palestinian messenger who would become a guiding light for millions around the world.” Although he expressed his commitment to the peace negotiations with Israel, he expressed harsh criticism of Israeli policies, including an accusation that Jerusalem is responsible for the plight of Christians in the Holy Land.
“We celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem under occupation,” Abbas wrote. “This Christmas Eve, our hearts and prayers will be with the millions who are being denied their right to worship in their homeland.” He called the security barrier an “annexation Wall, which is stealing [Palestinians'] land and dooming their future.”
These rather unfriendly statements are “not exactly in the spirit of Christmas,” Palmor, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said cynically. “Maybe he needs a hug from Santa?”
Abbas also mentioned Palestinians “trapped under siege” in Gaza, and “those who are prevented from worshiping in Bethlehem. Our hearts and prayers are with the people of Al Dbayeh Refugee Camp in Beirut, along with all of our Palestinian refugees — Christians and Muslims uprooted from their hometowns in 1948 and who, since that time, have suffered the vicissitudes of a forced exile.”
Abbas said more Palestinians will celebrate Christmas in Western cities than will do so in the city of Jesus’ birth. “To them we say that Bethlehem is their town and Palestine is their country. We will continue working tirelessly to give them the freedom to decide where to spend Christmas.”
An Israeli government official took offense particularly with the suggestion that Israel has caused Christians to leave the Holy Land. “The exodus of Christians from Bethlehem turned into a flood the moment the PA took control,” the official said.
But at least one Israeli official had some warm words for Abbas’s holiday message: MK Hanna Swaid (Hadash), an Arab Christian from the Galilee town of Eilaboun, backed up the message, if not the facts, of Abbas’s missive.
“What President Mahmoud Abbas said describes the real situation — Palestinians, including Christians, are celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve under Israeli occupation. That’s a fact,” he said.
Abbas’s Christmas message seemed to paper over the fact that Christians in the PA are only a fraction of the Muslims living in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Christians are not a minority here: they are an integral part of the Palestinian people,” Abbas wrote in his Christmas message. “Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians, Assyrians, Lutherans, Anglicans, Copts, Melkites, Protestants and others are all part of the rich mosaic of this free, sovereign, democratic and pluralistic Palestine we aspire to have.”
According to the CIA World Factbook, Christians make up 8 percent of the population in the West Bank, and 0.7% of Gaza.
Swaid, 58, acknowledged that in reality Christians are a minority among Palestinians, but noted that he appreciated Abbas’s comments nonetheless. “If the president of a country says so, he thinks and believes that to be the case,” Swaid said, adding that Abbas meant to emphasize that Christians are an “integral part” of Palestinian society.
A third-term lawmaker, Swaid this week tried unsuccessfully to get the Knesset to erect a Christmas tree as a sign of tolerance and inclusion of all of Israel’s minorities. “I tried to make Christians feel integrated, but alas, my request was rejected. President Abbas, without even asking us, said we’re an integral part of society. That’s a welcome initiative.”
Swaid said he was satisfied that Abbas chose to highlight the fact that Palestinian society consists of Muslims and Christians. “I am happy that President Abbas talked about the differences and the pluralism of the Palestinian people,” he said.